Internships provide lasting lessons for students and alumni
Editor’s note: Cyna Mirzai graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism and a minor in political science. She spent her senior year working as a paid student writer for Virginia Tech’s Communications and Marketing Division.
When first-year students arrive at Virginia Tech, everything is exciting. Choosing a major, discovering new friends, and imagining what life in four years may look like are part of what makes the college experience so special.
But not long after new students settle into college life, another worry looms large: finding an internship.
For college students, anticipating an internship feels a lot like having an anxiety attack. For some, there is tremendous pressure over when to find an internship and whether to search for one that is paid or to accept an unpaid opportunity. Others stress over how many internships they should pursue, or if they have been offered just one, wonder if that is enough to add value to a resume.
A 2023 graduate myself, the past four years were consumed either by current internships or looking ahead to what potential internship I could explore next. Each school year seemed to end with me scrambling to find an internship, and the feelings of distress and even despair were ever-present. Still, I continued the application process each year, and what came after those initial moments of dejection were the most important job-related experiences of my college career.
The majority of graduates of Virginia Tech say they had some kind of career-related experience as students, according to Virginia Tech Career and Professional Development, which surveys new graduates annually. When specifically referring to internship positions, 53 percent of 2022 graduates who responded to the survey indicated they had at least one internship during their time at the university.
Such numbers are leading Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and the Virginia Council of Presidents, which he chairs, into action. Sands and the council are committed to offering paid internships to every student who wants one without increasing time-to-degree.
Sands and the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors also are committed to removing barriers and offering the full educational experience, including activities such as internships, to students regardless of income. The Virginia Tech Advantage, launched in fall 2022, aims to provide a strong foundation for academic success through enhanced resources, a community of peers and mentors, and scholarships and emergency funds.
Why is there a push for more students to have job-related experiences? Because they offer lasting lessons, Virginia Tech alumni from various degree programs, industries, and age groups say.
For these alumni, some internships were a perfect match, while others became a lesson in what they didn’t want in a future career. Whether the internship was exactly what they expected or nothing they could imagine, alumni agree on one key point: internships are beneficial.
From Blacksburg to Hollywood
Ryan A. Paul, a rising senior majoring in public relations with minors in events and cinema, had a life-changing internship during the summer of 2022. Paul, who expects to graduate in December, served as a talent and public relations intern for the Television Academy’s Emmy Awards from June to September.
While the internship was a defining moment of his college career, getting there was not exactly smooth sailing. Paul applied to about 75 internships, beginning in December 2021. By April 2022, he had no offers.
“I was getting discouraged and thought maybe I wouldn’t have an internship that summer,” Paul said. “But deep down, I knew there was something out there for me. I love big events such as the Super Bowl halftime show, stadium concerts, and award shows. With that knowledge, I began to apply to additional internships within live entertainment.”
When Paul checked the Emmy Awards website, he saw an opening in talent relations for the summer leading up to the LA Area, Creative Arts and NBC Primetime Emmy Awards event. Paul was offered the position. He packed his bags and moved to Los Angeles for three months.
Once there, Paul began to regret his decision. He was alone in a big city, thousands of miles away from friends and family, and he had only limited interest in talent relations.
But he found the event work exciting.
“Watching my supervisors handle the intensity of this industry and creative process was eye opening,” he said. “I felt a lot of pressure because everything comes back to you in
talent relations when you are waiting to hear back from publicists, agents, managers, and
studios. Before this opportunity, I did not fully understand the amount of detail that went into Television Academy events, especially the five Emmy Awards produced.”
Although talent relations was a new challenge for Paul, his overall internship experience was a clear indicator that he was in the right industry.
“I enjoyed the environment I was in because I love large-scale and big budget projects,” Paul said. “So when the Emmys happened and I saw everything come together before my eyes, that was enough for me to know that this was the right space for me.”
After what felt like a never-ending application process, he found appreciation for the power of patience and giving yourself grace.
“I would always overthink my interviews,” Paul said. “I would spend too much time picking apart my answers. Eventually, I learned how to separate that anxiety from my delivery.”
That first internship
Carrie Rose Dortch spent the majority of her college summers working as a babysitter and nanny. A 2022 Virginia Tech alum with a degree in international relations, Dortch wasn’t sure what she would do after graduation. As her last college summer drew near, Dortch decided she wanted an internship rather than an hourly job.
“Government contracting is an interesting field,” said Dortch, who today is a contract administrator at Amentum. “I didn’t know anything about the industry or learn about it in college. After giving the human resources manager information about the future careers I was interested in, she recommended I apply for the contract analysis internship. But when I got the internship, I thought, ‘Why did they trust me with all of this?’”
In the beginning of her internship, Dortch was rarely involved in contractual work. Instead, she spent hours inputting data for contract managers. As the weeks passed, she felt no desire to continue the work after graduation.
“All I knew was that I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life,” she said.
As summer came to an end and Dortch began her senior year, however, she decided to continue the internship to gain more experience. To her surprise, she was given a few contracts to manage, and she learned that with more experience, she could take part in the work that interested her.
Dortch looks back on the experience and appreciates the vast number of connections she made.
“Even if it’s something that you aren’t very interested in, or maybe it’s not the company you wanted to work with, an internship helps you open your mind to new experiences and new networking opportunities,” Dortch said.
But she also said that while students may feel pressured to pursue internships in college, it is completely normal if you don’t have one during most of your college years.
“That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to get a job,” Dortch said. “Try your best to have different experiences that could help your future career, but never feel bad about not having an internship when it feels like everyone else has one. Whenever it is meant to be, that time will come.”
Change of plan
Melissa Gabriel’s journey didn’t start at Virginia Tech, but rather at the United States Air Force Academy. Gabriel, now a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, attended the academy for two years but ultimately saw that the school was not the best fit for her. Gabriel then spent two years attending community college, trying to figure out where to transfer to complete her degree.
“I knew I wanted to still serve, but I didn’t like the environment of the Air Force Academy,” Gabriel said. “So when I was doing my research, I came across Virginia Tech. I loved that there was a Corps of Cadets here and that there was a balance of living with other cadets but still being a part of the vibrant campus community that is Virginia Tech.”
Gabriel, who graduated in 2019 with a degree in political science and communication and a commission into the Army, gained real-world work experience through the Corps of Cadets instead of a traditional internship. During her senior year, she was offered the position of regimental public affairs officer. Gabriel was tasked with running the corps’ social media, so she spent the semester creating content for the corps’ Instagram page and YouTube channel as well as writing media releases for important events.
“As a communication major, this role gave me a lot of experience because I was actually able to do hands-on work that I never got to do in my classes,” she said.
The position offered Gabriel new experiences and opportunities to develop professional skills that she can use in future positions. For example, Gabriel introduced the idea of doing a live question and answer event on the corps’ Instagram account to support high school students interested in attending Virginia Tech and joining the corps.
Now, as a field artillery officer in the 82nd Airborne, Gabriel continues to engage in public affairs work for her unit, helping to run the unit’s Instagram and Facebook accounts. As her time in the Army continues, Gabriel sees herself working in psychological operations or strategic marketing.
Rebecca Pearson’s college career was nothing short of eventful. A 2014 graduate of the Pamplin College of Business, Pearson took part in a 400-hour internship program that was required by the hospitality and tourism management program during her senior year.
Pearson, today an industry affairs project manager for The Coca-Cola Co., points to this internship with the Fauquier County Fair, where she was the event and marketing coordinator, as her most memorable internship experience.
As an intern, Pearson conducted market research for people attending small events as well as an annual large event that served a huge population. Pearson was part of business decisions that determined how the organization would advertise to entice attendees to the annual event.
Pearson came away from the internship with an array of experiences and measurable data about her successes. She credits this in helping her receive 13 job offers after graduation.
“It helped me gain hands-on experience that I could relate to a job interview process,” Pearson said. “So even if you think you are not picking the right internship, it’s a form of applicable experience, and that will help you get to where you eventually want to go.”
Pearson’s internship took place during the school year, and she encourages students to consider opportunities that are remote and occur during academic semesters if a summer internship does not come into fruition.
“Even if it seems like everyone you know has a summer internship, there are also so many internships out there that provide a part-time role during the school year,” she said. “And if you enjoy the work you do as an intern, it doesn’t feel like extra schoolwork but instead more applicable and exciting work.”
A trial run
Antuan Byalik had a host of internships during his four years at Virginia Tech. Now a software engineering manager at Bloomberg, Byalik credits those experiences for his professional advancement and 7 1/2 year tenure at his current position.
Byalik said a career fair he attended as a student helped him find internships at companies such as Bloomberg, Northrop Grumman, and Amazon. The most important thing he learned was knowing what he doesn’t like.
“While the work was often interesting, I was so far removed from my end users that the feedback loop was often quite long,” Byalik said. “I found myself wanting something faster paced where I could see my work in action by end users and iteratively.
“I think it’s more important to know what you don’t like rather than what you do like,” he said. “For me, it was really important that I realized I didn’t want to work at a government contracting space and an internship helped me see that clearly.”
Byalik also liked that internships gave him a trial run of how companies in his industry work. It can be difficult to know how businesses operate before you graduate without an internship, he said.
“Internships aren’t forever,” he said. “Rather, they allow you to have a short period of time to understand what you are looking for when you want to start your career. Especially if you are at a company that really treats you like an adult in your internship, it can be an incredibly eye-opening experience for what it’s like to be a full-time employee in your field.”
Byalik now works with Bloomberg’s interns. He said the biggest thing he looks for in interns on his team is how eager they are to learn.
“I value a strong culture fit that will bring the team up overall, rather than someone who might just be strong technically,” he said. “With the right attitude and mindset to add to the team’s diversity of thought, you are tremendously more valuable than just being an independent engineer. Those are the types of people we want on our team.”
From the ’90s to today
Craig Struble graduated in 1993 with a degree in computer science. He went on to receive a master’s and a doctorate in computer science and applications from Virginia Tech, as well. But even after more than 20 years, Struble still looks back fondly on his internship years.
Struble, who is now the director of automation and data engineering at PacBio, a biotechnology company that develops systems for gene sequencing, participated in a co-op program offered by Virginia Tech that connected undergraduate students to three internships. Struble worked with Nortel Networks, which was a part of the telecom industry—his first opportunity to use his computer science skills and apply it to a very particular industry.
“I got a lot of exposure in working with senior engineers and working in a team environment,” Struble said. “It helped me learn what it was like to work on official projects and work with important people who were outside of my field.”
Since then, Struble has worked as a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and as a director for computation sciences and engineering at Inscripta Inc.
While internships were not mandatory during his undergraduate education, Struble is excited about a push that encourages more internships for students.
“Whether it’s understanding the work environment or understanding what type of job you want, internships let you do that,” he said. “Cultures are different in every company and industry, so having a couple different internships at different places is the best thing you can do to set yourself up for success.”
Destined for success
Virginia Tech Career and Professional Development conducts a First Destination Survey among recent graduates each year. The office uses this data to explore the impact of work-based learning for students who land at a “first destination” within six months of graduation — these could include employment, admission to graduate school, or military commissioning.
The results from 2021-22 indicated:
- Students who work part-time jobs are 20 percent less likely to report a first destination.
- Students with paid internships are 110 percent more likely.
- Students with co-ops are 140 percent more likely.
- Students with undergraduate research experience are 40 percent more likely.
- Female and underrepresented students are less likely to have had paid internships.
The data supports the value of paid internships, as supported by Sands. The Virginia Council of Presidents, chaired by Sands, has made a commitment to work toward the availability of a paid internship for every student who wants one, that will not extend a student’s graduation timeline.
The Virginia Tech Advantage
Sands and the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors have identified removing financial barrier and expanding resources for students as leading priorities for the future of the university.
While Virginia Tech’s graduation rates, mid-career salaries, and loan repayment rates are among the highest in the nation, tuition and fees at public institutions in Virginia are higher than national medians for similar institutions. The scholarships and grants Virginia Tech provides to reduce the cost of attendance for students and families are lower than the university’s peers, especially for low- and middle-income students.
The Virginia Tech Advantage is a universitywide, multiyear commitment to offer the broad educational experience to admitted undergraduate students from Virginia, regardless of income. It is a reflection of the university's commitment to serve the Commonwealth of Virginia and its residents.
At scale, the program will remove barriers for more than 5,500 students from underrepresented and underserved communities. It will provide a strong foundation for academic success through enhanced resources, a community of peers and mentors, and scholarships and emergency funds. It will help students enhance the value of their Virginia Tech degrees by providing opportunities for research, learning, and discovery inside and outside of the classroom or lab.
Through the Virginia Tech Advantage, students will have greater flexibility to pursue paid internships, which significantly increase the likelihood that they will land successfully in a job after college or pursue graduate education.
With the implementation of the Bridge Experience Program as the focus of the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan in 2020, Virginia Tech has continued to make work-based experiential learning, which include internships and similar co-op experiences, central to its hands-on, minds-on approach to undergraduate education.
According to research from Virginia Tech’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, in-state students from rural areas are the least likely to participate in a paid internship, deterred by housing and relocation costs or the summer tuition required to get curricular credit for an internship.
Students thrive when they can apply classroom learning in professional contexts. The Bridge Experience Program supports the integration of experiential learning into departmental curricula. Students identify desirable opportunities through guided exploration in class. Bridge experiences include undergraduate research, internships, and other place-based experiences that help prepare students for post-graduation life, a key component of student success.
Written by Cyna Mirzai ’23